The League of Gentleman was a British BBC2 dark comedy that started in the late nineties and ran for several series. It was set in the fictional village of Royston Vasey and three of the programme’s creators, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss, played the roles of various of its odd inhabitants, both men and women, hence the name ‘league of gentlemen’. After a break of fifteen years, the series returned to the BBC for a three-episode ‘Anniversary Special’ last Christmas, apparently, in part, to make a comment on Brexit Britain. This comeback met with rave reviews. However, this post is going to consider just how ‘radical’ the political commentary really was throughout these revived episodes.
In the first, ‘Return to Royston Vasey’, a drunk urinating against a bin tells a new arrival at the train station (a journalist), through indicating the accumulating refuse, that Vasey was not always like this: ‘“used to be a right shit hole”’, he says. As the credits roll, familiar to established viewers, the camera pans passed boarded up shops all the way down the high street, arriving at the food bank, which, like any bank, has a cash machine, only this one issues slices of ham and cheese. The main storyline of these anniversary specials is that a boundary change will mean that Royston Vasey no longer exists. A key character from earlier series, JobCentre Pauline, allows these episodes to comment abstractly on the current state of ‘job seeking’. A much darker world of welfare to work and universal credit than the satire of Pauline’s pens and ‘Just the Job’ posters could possibly have envisaged over a decade ago. She has dementia and is engaging in a role-play with Mickey-Love and Ross, which forms part of her ‘reminiscence therapy’. It is an indictment of the modern system that Pauline has been destroyed and, moreover, that her previous brutality and violence is retrospectively constructed here as nostalgia. Other characters have been left with nothing too, Geoff, a volatile, jealous and stupid working-class man, is reduced to eating discarded egg mayonnaise sandwiches from supermarket food bins. ‘“I’m on the bones of my arse”’, he tells his slightly better-off friend Brian.
The stalwart Tubbs and Edward appear towards the end of the episode, having been foregrounded nearer the beginning, when a council worker has the ‘Royston Vasey: You Will Never Leave’ sign removed from the moor beside the ruin of the ‘Local Shop’. While there the council worker receives a call to say that persistent squatters remain in a block of flats due for demolition. She says she will drop by after work to investigate, which she duly does, after dark, and with the journalist of earlier in tow. True to form, Edward calls the two women lesbians and says that they have sexual designs on his wife, Tubbs. He also repeats the importance of locality or localness several times to the point of absurdity: Asking whether the council and newspaper they respectively represent are indeed ‘local’? He considers again and again the great need for ‘good local people’ like him and his wife.
If all this already feels rather uncomfortable, at this point I will interrupt my description of the content of each episode with some even more troubling context. These episodes reportedly had an absolutely eye-watering budget. Yet the filming was even more disruptive and disrespectful to the residents of Hadfield (the location for Royston Vasey) than ever before – indeed, this was perhaps because of the huge budget. The presence of rude security guards further symbolised the now widely recognised fame and success of the ‘gentlemen’: Back in the late nineties they were unknowns and could not afford to alienate the actual ‘locals’. During the filming this time it became apparent to residents that they were deliberately making Royston Vasey, and therefore Hadfield by default, look like a ‘dump’. It is true that Hadfield is a deprived area and during the intervening years between the final series and these specials, it has become even more so. Unemployment is high, aspiration is low, home ownership is rare and hard drug use is rife. This is not detail taken from the script; this is a lived reality. Educational attainment is poor and ambition almost non-existent, the tagline to the town sign, ‘You Will Never Leave’, is simply the truth for the majority of young people in the area. It is not material for comedy, and, if it were to be used, the fun should be poked at the structural inequalities that trap people living in these forgotten Northern towns and villages. Instead, for The League of Gentlemen, it is the people themselves who are both laughed at and at fault. Hadfield is not as ugly as Royston Vasey is made to look – overflowing bins, boarded up shops – yet the grinding poverty and degradation of some people’s lives there is even worse than that depicted. The power, privilege and money behind such a production contributes to an economy that makes some people very poor so others can be extremely rich – but what is worse is the money itself is being made here through mocking the increasingly bleak situation of the ‘have nots’. And anyone who has had any dealings with BBC productions will know that its employees are very definitely on the ‘have’ side of the divide: Look to the recent BBC pay dispute for further details.
During the credits to the second instalment, ‘Save Royston Vasey’, there is an entirely boarded up street and a homeless man in a ‘tramp clamp’. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking: Is that the best you can do? The most poignant moment of this whole anniversary series occurs during this episode when an elderly bingo caller tells the story of the loss of his partner through the numbers called. The monologue critiques the state of the NHS, as his partner died from an infection caught on a ward following their transition operation: ‘“I don’t see why they can’t keep hospitals clean, never used to be a problem”’, he concludes sadly. The fate of arts companies in the neoliberal age is also commented upon through the pathetic mouthpiece of Oliver Plimsoll, once founder of Legz Akimbo acting company, and now reduced to secondary school drama teacher. ‘“We used to visit schools like this”’, he tells his surprisingly engaged year nines in what turns out to be a dream. The reality comes at the end when one of them tells him to ‘“fuck off you sad wanker”’. Later the mayor and her assistant are fussing all the way up the stairs of the town hall in preparation for a community meeting about the boundary change. ‘“There’s nothing people care more passionately about than there own community”’, the assistant insists, only for them to round the corner and discover that the hall is completely empty, row upon row of vacant chairs.
Yet, unsurprisingly, it is Tubbs and Edward who end up pursuing a more successful defence against the boundary change, albeit unknowingly. They have taken hostage the council worker and journalist of the previous episode. Tubbs accidently records then sends a video of Edward cellotaping their noses up and ranting: ‘“Time to become local […] This is a local shop for local people, it’s time we took back control”’. It would hardly take a discourse analyst to spot the parallel; this is political commentary, but definitely just for beginners.
The difficulty is that nothing exists in a vacuum and the filming of these anniversary specials has actually contributed to some of the social problems apparently being critiqued. In the opening credits, the boarded up residences are among the most deprived households in Hadfield. Old shops, converted into too many flats for easy profit, they lack adequate space and ventilation. Word has it, the residents were offered money to have their windows and doors boarded up for the filming – taking away both light and access. Yet, despite the huge budget, this money was apparently not forthcoming until said residents threatened to pull the boardings down. Of course any payment made would only further fuel the drug and alcohol dependency (and therefore the poverty) being lambasted.
The final episode, ‘Royston Vasey Mon Amour’, brings home the connection to Brexit with all the subtlety of a claw hammer. On BBC news, a politician responds to Edward in the above-mentioned video, by parroting, ‘“I for one am sick of people talking our country down”’. Edward replies ‘“Poppycock! Piping words into my mouth!”’ Later Edward describes the hostages as bargaining chips, then finally, when the Prime Minister has reversed the boundary change, Edward announces to the ecstatic mob outside: ‘“A local country for local people and the will of the local people will prevail!”’ Such ventriloquised, inane soundbites demonstrate that the discourse of Brexit is both confused and nonsensical: But is the situation so desperate that even satire making such an obvious statement as that is to be lauded and excessively celebrated? The more sinister implication though is the violence that goes with the voices behind ‘a local country for local people’; Tubbs and Edward are serial killers, disfigurers, kidnappers and, perpetuating just one more small-town-stereotype, apparently brother and sister as well as husband and wife. The placard-welding crowd, waving around slogans such as ‘We Demand Local’, are described as sheep by the mayor, who herself was seen earlier wearing a ‘We Are Local’ t-shirt. It all feels a little limp (and rather self-indulgent) in the face of mounting financial anxiety and steeply escalating hate crime.
Ultimately, these episodes do not constitute critique. The production itself, by its very nature as ‘monied’, both reproduces and reinforces the social inequalities that cause the behaviours the series mocks. People do not behave in this irrational and contradictory way in isolation, and the boundary change is not reason enough. Real critique would lampoon the genuine bad guys; Tubbs and Edward are not the problem, they are outliers, gone mainstream. It is those who have created this glorification of localness who really deserve our cruel laughter and our disdain.